Favorite Herb This Week: Black Birch!

Black Birch (betula lenta) is definitely one of my Top Ten favorite herbs of all time. And luckily for me, it’s ALL OVER the place here in Northeastern Connecticut!

A young black birch I saw on my walk today

Black birch and it’s brother, White birch (also known as the Paper Birch) can pretty much be used interchangeably medicinally speaking, so I have been trying to only work with black birch trees because the white birch are kind of endangered due to the bronze birch borer and a condition called birch dieback (Source). Birch trees can be tapped in the early spring to collect their sap (a great drink in and of itself) in order to make birch syrup, and the inner bark can be harvested to make a flour substitute, though I would only ever try this on a recently fallen or cut tree.

See the horizontal lines in the bark, along with the light/white patches?

It is never recommended that you harvest bark directly from the trunk of the tree, as doing so could accidentally girdle it and cause it to die. Instead, ask the plant’s permission to harvest a branch or two and simply prune them off if it tells you it’s okay. Always leave an offering for the tree, such as a pinch of tobacco or kinnickkinnick, or a few pieces of your hair in way of thanks. Then take them home and carefully strip the bark off each section of branch, being sure to capture the cambium layer. You can also add the buds to your concoction.

Harvesting and scraping bark is always done in late winter or early spring, hence the ugly sweatshirt

My absolute favorite thing to make with birch bark is an infused oil. Some of my birch oil jars have sat for months before I remembered to strain them, but it always works out as the batch just gets even stronger. Add a few drops of birch essential oil and voila! You have the BEST topical painkiller for muscle and joint aches. I think this year I will try making a small batch of tincture as well, as I hear that is useful internally for joint pain. I’ve had arthritis since my early 20s and farming really hurts my back some days, so every little thing I can find to relieve the pain helps!

Birch buds in January

Black birch twigs are useful as fire starters, and fresh twigs can be chewed by adults as a breath freshener and by toddlers to help relieve teething pain.

What do you think? Do you ever work with birch bark? Remember, I can sell you some of the oil I make if you’d like to experience birch’s magical healing properties!

Herbal Experimentation

While I have had some herbalist education, listen to educational podcasts, and look through my herbal healing books on a regular basis, I do not consider myself an expert. I am more knowledgeable than most, and I continue to learn something new about herbs and the way they work every day. Part of this learning process is experimentation.

Remember a few posts back about my herbal steam? That worked GREAT to help clear my stuffy nose, but whatever I had ended up moving into my chest after awhile. So I was coughing, or feeling the urge to cough (unproductively, I might add) for WEEKS. As in I just stopped coughing for the most part within the past few days. The best part is that of course, now my husband has it. Things like this trend to work their way through his system WAY faster than mine, so I’m not too worried.

Anyway, part of what I did over the past few weeks to help us get through this is to make an herbal cough syrup. Have you ever tried Wild Cherry Bark Cough Syrup? That stuff is awesome! It’s the reason old fashioned cough syrup didn’t taste that great… but it works like a dream. Anyway, I had harvested some wild cherry bark back in February of this year and thought I should try working with this wonderful herbal ally. Then I thought: Ooh! Rose hips would add vitamin C! And I harvested some elacampane root this year, that’s an excellent cough remedy… Oh, and I have some dried elderberries, let’s throw some of those in! It kind of kept going like that until I had thrown all together: elderberries, rose hips, wild cherry bark, red sumac berries, astragalus root, elacampane root, fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, some cloves, black peppercorns, licorice root, and a little white pine bark.

I know, I sound like a kitchen sink herbalist here. And sometimes I am! But I am getting better at realizing that certain herbs not only work well together, but also TASTE great together. So I simmered this concoction in water for a good half hour to an hour. After that, I strained the solids out through a cheese cloth, then returned the resulting liquid back to the pot and turned the burner on low. I was aiming to reduce the liquid a bit, to concentrate the constituents before adding my sweetener.

I have the patience of a gnat, so this didn’t last long. I kept the heat on low for about twenty minutes, and around the end I added about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of raw honey. I actually had some old sage-infused honey in the cupboard so I figured that would be an even better added boost, since sage is known for healing scratchy throats. I didn’t measure jack squat throughout this entire process, so I’m sorry I can’t give you an exact recipe here. The glass pot I use holds about a quart’s worth of water, if that helps. I wanted to keep the heat low so I wouldn’t kill any of the benefits from the raw honey.

Anyhoo, after the honey was well incorporated into the warm decoction, I poured it through the cheesecloth again for good measure and into a glass swing top bottle I had. After pouring it all in, I had a little room left near the top of the bottle. This was perfect, because I really wanted to add some brandy to the jar to help preserve the mixture, mainly because I hadn’t used nearly enough honey to turn it into a real “syrup.” I would guess I added about 1/3 cup of brandy, then I plugged the top with the swing top cork and gave the bottle a shake. I opened it once to burp it, just in case, then closed it up again and stuck it in the door of the refrigerator.

Finished syrup

We are now on our second bottle. I occasionally change up the recipe (am I out of rose hips? Add some orange peels instead… maybe throw some mullein leaves into the pot after the heat has been turned off) and we are going through it like crazy because it works FANTASTIC. The kids like it, we all love the flavor, and it helps stop the coughing for a good couple of hours. Instead of a small medicine cup, we just take about a half shot glass’ worth, maybe a bit more if the coughing is really bad. I gave some to my daughter to help her cough last week and she stopped coughing immediately. I wouldn’t worry about the brandy– it doesn’t really add more alcohol than a regular bottle of commercial medicine would have in it anyhow.

Changing Your Outlook

Changing your behavior or your emotions is really hard, especially for anyone with a strong personality or psychological issues. You could be addicted to some substance and having a hell of a time quitting, you could have Seasonal Affective Disorder over the dark, dreary winter months, you could have lost a loved one and be unable to let go, you could have an Attention Deficit Disorder and not be able to organize your thoughts properly or get yourself to actually DO any of the things that need doing around your house. There are many, many facets to psychology and the human mind. And I’ll say right now: I’m not a psychologist. But I AM a flower essence practitioner, and I know from experience that flower essences can help.

Flower essences are energetic medicine. Just a few drops of essence in your water or cool beverage of choice a few times throughout the day produces the desired effect– your mind will suddenly start thinking in a different way. Your heart or brain fog will clear and the feelings you WISHED to feel will materialize. The words stuck inside your head that you couldn’t manifest with your mouth will suddenly flow freely from the tongue. You’ll finally get up and do the pile of dishes in the sink that have been sitting there for days (Blackberry). You’ll finally tell your significant other that you want to do the thing you’ve been wanting to do, but were afraid to tell them about (Echinacea). You’ll finally be able to stop crying over Grandma’s death (Borage).

St. John’s Wort Flower Essence is a powerful tool against S.A.D.

Flower essences are POWERFUL medicine. But they are also incredibly SAFE to take. Flower essences are not the same as a medicinal tincture; you can be on actual pharmaceutical medicine and still safely take flower essences. However, if your pharmaceutical meds are of a kind that affect behavior in some way (antidepressants or ADHD meds for example,) the flower essence may not work as intended. The flower wants to work with YOU, not the medication you’re on.

Whatever personal goal you are feeling the need to help yourself with, please consider flower essence therapy. If you would like help or suggestions, use the Contact Us form and I will gladly help you choose the best essence (or combination of essences) to help you. Please peruse our Flower Essence Listings (scroll down for more) for yourself or a loved one. If you would like help healing your whole self, body and mind, consider a Consultation. But don’t knock the power of flower essences until you try them!

Fire Cider Time

It’s that time of year again! I was always taught that you only harvest horseradish (the key ingredient in fire cider) in months that end in an “R”, and since September was still hot and dry, I waited until early October to harvest my root crops. Unfortunately, my attempt at growing ginger this year was a bust… but I DID manage to grow a small amount of horseradish, some turmeric, onions, garlic, various hot peppers, and all the herbs I put into my fire cider.

Giant jar of fire cider I made this week

Fire Cider is not exactly a ferment… I think it’s more of a tonic, really. You grate and chop all these ingredients, plus lemon juice and zest, and stuff them into a jar. Then cover with apple cider vinegar. I like to cheat and will buy a small jar of ACV “with the mother” to get the probiotic in there, and just finish off the jar with regular distilled ACV, since it will all incorporate anyhow. I let this macerate generally 6-8 weeks, shaking the jar occasionally.

First time growing turmeric!

Once that time is up, you simply strain all the solids from the vinegar and pour the vinegar into a clean glass jar, preferably with a (non-reactive) plastic lid. You can throw the solids into a blender and use them as a meat rub or add a bit to broth or soup for a wild kick.

Fire cider is generally drank in a shot glass– I will take at least half a shot’s worth if I’m feeling under the weather or think I may have a virus coming into my system. Definitely drink a full shot if you’re already sick. I suggest you try a small amount of the fire cider first before you decide how you want to take it. I think the easiest way it to just suck it back quick like a shot and slap your hand on the counter top with a whoop. To each his own…

If you aren’t keen on the flavor, you can try adding some honey, or mixing it with some juice or water. It can also help to have some juice nearby as an after-drink once you’ve swallowed the cider. AND if you’re a drinker, it actually goes really well with a little bourbon and mixed into a Hot Toddy.

The benefits of fire cider are simple— it’s basically a massive dose of antiviral medicine that will kick the living crap out of whatever virus (sand some bacteria) has invaded your body. It’s mostly used during winter time, when you’re stuck indoors and around other people, and your body’s immune system is barraged with tons of wee bacteria beasties with no chance of escape in the open air. But it can be helpful for spring time allergies or that weird unexpected summer cold that catches you off guard. Basically, fire cider helps burn the virus out of your body.

Do you take Fire Cider? Or do you make your own? I’ve been making mine every year for over ten years and now my family can’t live without it.

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